Let's start this one off with an anecdote of my time in Hanoi so you can get a feel of what my trip was like!
It was late! Most places in the Hanoi Old Quarter had already closed down for the night, which meant it was past midnight. My friend Daniel and I had just left the drinking establishment we had been frequenting when we were approached by two Vietnamese guys and one girl on motorbikes. They were inviting us to get on with them. Although we didn't really know what was going on, somehow, we convinced ourselves that they wanted to take us to another bar or pub that was still open. So, like any *slightly* intoxicated foreigners would do, we got on and didn't ask any questions (which is retrospect, was a very stupid decision and could have been more than slightly dangerous... as I write this, I still have both my kidneys though). I was with one guy on one motorbike and Daniel was sandwiched between the other two on the other bike. About 5 minutes into our "joyride", I could hear Daniel shouting that the girl behind him was grabbing his junk and was most likely a prostitute. Thirty seconds later, they suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere, told us to get off and pointed towards an extremely shady-looking neighborhood before riding off into the night. We immediately decided that we did not want to be here and started walking back from where we came from, hoping to find an open watering hole on the way. It's only when Daniel reached into his pants pocket to grab his phone to check the time, that he realized it was missing. Turns out it was no coincidence that the girl had been sitting behind him and grabbing his junk with one hand, while, with the other, snagging his phone from his pocket. The joke was on them though, cause Daniel's phone was an old piece of junk... and at least he got fondled for it!
That's just a glimpse into my time in Vietnam.... Now let's go back to the start:
The day was Tuesday, June 5, 2012 and I had just finished my work day. I had asked my coteacher to call me a cab and have it wait for me so I could catch the 4:10pm airport limousine to Incheon International Airport and make my 7:20pm flight to Hanoi. Everything was extremely rushed, but I managed to check in, check my backpack and go through security with about 30 minutes or so to spare before takeoff. As I sat by myself at the boarding gate, I remember being extremely eager to embark on my first solo traveling adventure. You see, because of a stroke of luck and intense negotiations (Memorial day, my school's birthday + 1 vacation day), I had been able to convince my VP to give me an extra day off and thus securing a five-day vacation in the middle of June! There was no way I wasn't taking full advantage of this opportunity! Unfortunately, Jen had not been able to secure time off from work so I was going to have to do this one on my own... It was bittersweet.
Four and a half hours later, when I landed in Hanoi, I got my VISA-on-arrival (which I had previously obtained, hassle free, through Vietnam-Visa.com), went through customs, grabbed my backpack and met up with the guy holding my name on a piece of paper. He was my car service into Hanoi that I had prearranged through my hostel to avoid the risk of being scammed by some opportunistic cab driver, which is quite common in Vietnam (I read it in Lonely Planet). Forty five minutes later, after a ride that featured listening to Boney M's Christmas CD (it was between that or some boy band - no thank you) and wonderment of the pure traffic craziness that was unfolding in front of my eyes, he dropped me off at May de Ville Backpackers, where I would be staying during my time in Hanoi. Located in the heart of the Hanoi Old Quarter and for only $6 a night (including a hot buffet breakfast), this is without a doubt the best hostel I have ever stayed at anywhere in the world. In fact, it felt more like a 4-start hotel and the staff was incredibly helpful throughout my stay, remembering my name and chatting me up every time I came to the lobby area. They also helped me book my Halong Bay tour as well as provided answers to every question I had about the city. I can't recommend this place enough. They go well above and beyond the call of duty to make sure their guests are comfortable and well-taken care of (they had a door man... at a hostel)!!!
|The entrance and lobby of May de Ville Backpackers' Hostel|
|Rooms were narrow but functional|
I woke up bright and early and, not having to wait for anyone, got going immediately. After breakfast, I had the staff call me a taxi to take me to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the preserved body of the late communist and fearless leader is on display for the population's admiration. The mausoleum is open daily from 8 to 11am to the public and is a very serious affair. Bags, cameras and phones are not allowed to be taken in and armed guards are lined up while you queue your way into the eerie building that marks the tiny Vietnamese leader's final resting place. I was pleasantly surprised with the devotion and admiration that the local populace showed toward Ho Chi Minh as they waited for their turn to see him. The lineup was extremely long and filled, not with foreigners, but with Vietnamese people who came to pay their respects to their once-upon-a-time liberator! The weather was incredibly hot and muggy, bordering 40oC at 8am so I was drenched with sweat that had completely rendered my clothes useless before I even stepped into the mausoleum... I may as well have jumped into a pool of water fully clothed! I am definitely not used to this kind of weather!
|The Mausoleum from outside|
Before leaving, I took the opportunity to also visit Ho Chi Minh's stilt house, garden and pond as well as the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which were all on the premises. Next, I walked a few blocks to the Vietnam War Museum (appropriately located across the street from Lenin's statue), where I snapped a few cool pictures of captured American artillery, tanks and fighter jets (mostly caught during the TET offensive during the Vietnam War. The annoyance of being uncomfortably wet started getting to me however so I decided to head back to the hostel for one of my many daily change of clothes before continuing to explore this wonderful city.
|HCM's stilt house|
|Statue of Ho Chi Minh inside the Museum|
|Lenin statue across from the War museum|
|Captured US fighter jet|
|War memorial artwork with a captured tank|
After lunch, I headed over to the Water Pupper Theatre to buy some tickets for one of their daily shows, before continuing on to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. On the way, I was ripped off by, not one, but two locals who pressured me into buying overpriced unnecessary things (fruit and a fan). After spending some time at the temple and reading up about its resident turtle, I continued on a few blocks until I reached the Vietnam National Museum of History. Although it was highly rated in Lonely Planet, I was fairly disappointed with the exhibits that were not very comprehensive nor as educational as I had hoped, so I didn't spend more time there than I had to.
|Pagoda in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake|
|Ngoc Son Temple entrance. Very colourful!|
|The resident turtle|
|One of the locals who ripped me off... In exchange I got photo-proof! (I bought that fan)|
|Grand Opera house - modeled after the French opera house|
|Vietnam National Museum of History|
|Dragon exhibit was worth it|
|Clay model of an important battle vs the French!|
A few hours later, I returned to the Water Pupper Theatre to enjoy their famous water puppet show! While extremely entertaining for the first 15-20, the show does get a little redundant by the end. I did however thoroughly enjoy the experience of watching the puppeteers work their magic to traditional Vietnamese live music played on traditional instruments. Overall, I was very satisfied with the experience.
|The live musicians!|
|My Bia Hoi drinking buddies|
A half-day nap was exactly what the doctor had ordered! I woke up refreshed (well sort of) and ready to tackle the cooking class... I was also starving since I hadn't eaten anything all day. When I got back to Hanoi Cooking Centre (this time without any problems), I was greeted by several of the staff who all shared a laugh at my morning plight. Shortly after, one of the staff took me (I was the only one signed for the class that day) to the local market for a very interesting tour! Turns out they are gong out of style despite the local culture and the government is slowly stripping them away to build western-style supermarkets. I felt lucky to have been able to see it since, in all likelihood, it won't exist the next time I visit Hanoi. When we returned to HCC, she introduced me to their master chef, who would be my instructor for the next few hours of cooking up a storm (more specifically, five different types of springrolls.. YUMMY!). While preparing, chopping, mixing and cooking each springroll, he shared the history and the culture of this popular Vietnamese dish. At one point, he even boiled a fertilized duck egg (yes, it could have hatched had we not eaten it), which we shared while the springrolls were being deep-fried. It was surprisingly delicious despite looking absolutely disgusting (I can't believe that was the first thing I put in my stomach all day). After spending a few hours cooking, I was brought upstairs, served a drink of my choice (beer) and got to enjoy the meal that I had just finished preparing. It was absolutely scrumptious! And at 5pm, it definitely hit the spot, although I couldn't finish everything I had made so they doggy-bagged it for me! The kitchen, the service and the staff at HCC were impeccable and I highly recommend a visit if you are looking to learn about Vietnamese cuisine. I was really disappointed I missed the street food tour, but was very satisfied with the exclusive cooking class!
|The market after it just reopened at 2pm. Fresh meat was just arriving!|
|Preparing some springrolls|
|Boiled fertilized duck egg.. Yummy! :)|
For my last night in Hanoi, I met Jen and Daniel for dinner at a place called Highway 4. They have all sorts of delicacies on their menu, including crickets, frog, ostrich and buffalo. Daniel indulged in a few of these, while I opted for a conservative, cashew chicken, meal. I did, however, treat myself to a few crickets that were surprisingly appetizing. They tasted nothing like the huge grasshopper I had in Thailand. Instead, they tasted like BBQ'd meat and had a nice crunch to them... although the legs did tend to stay stuck in your teeth. After dinner, I retired back to my hostel for a good night's sleep before heading over to Halong Bay the next day. So stay tuned for that one coming up shortly!
|Inside Highway 4 (recommended by LP)|
|View from my hostel window|
|Old Quarter at night. Somehow, I couldn't capture the busy-ness of this place in a picture|
|One of the many Bia Hoi corners!|
|The taxi-bikes are everywhere!|